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What is a muscle cramp?

A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of a muscle or group of muscles. A muscle cramp can happen when the muscle is overworked or in an unusual position. Muscle cramps are often short-lived, but sometimes they can last longer. There are many factors that may cause a cramp to occur, including dehydration, being in an awkward position for too long, or being in contact with certain chemicals.

What can cause muscle cramps?

The physiology of cramps is not fully understood, but they may be due to a short circuit in the neural signals from the muscles to the brain. Mainly, Muscle cramps are caused by disruption in the flow of blood, oxygen, or nutrients to a muscle. As these disruptions occur, localized anaerobic metabolism ensues and this triggers the release of lactic acid. This buildup of lactic acid can cause muscle spasms which are what are known as muscle cramps. Cramping may also be caused by electrolyte imbalances, dehydration, or inadequate stretching.

How are muscle cramps diagnosed?

In most cases, muscle cramps are harmless, and you do not need to seek medical treatment. It is however important to see a physician if you are experiencing muscle cramps that are severe, don’t improve after stretching, or persist for a long period of time. An underlying medical condition might be causing this.

A physical examination will help your doctor determine the cause of muscle cramps. Your physician may ask you these questions:

  • Do you suffer from muscle cramps frequently?
  • Where is the pain felt?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Are you an alcoholic?
  • How do you exercise?
  • Are you drinking enough liquids each day?

A blood test may also be needed to check your potassium and calcium levels as well as your thyroid and kidney functions. A pregnancy test may also be necessary for woman.

A doctor may order an electromyogram (EMG). This test measures muscle activity and detects any abnormalities. An MRI can also be helpful. It’s a tool that creates an image of your spinal cord. In some cases, a myelogram, or myelography, is useful. A nerve disorder may be indicative of weakness, pain, or loss of sensation. Tell your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.

What can be done to treat muscle cramps?

  • As soon as you feel a cramp creeping up on your muscle, apply a hot or cold compress.
  • If your calf cramps, you can stretch it by pulling your foot upward with your hand. For example, if your calf cramps, you could pull your foot upward with your hand. 
  • To reduce pain, try over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen. You may also find it helpful to stretch your sore muscles gently.
  • Sleep can be disturbed by muscle cramps. If this occurs, talk to your doctor about taking a muscle relaxer medicine. Muscle spasms can be reduced with this medication.
  • Your symptoms may improve and your spasms may dissipate if you control the underlying cause. A low calcium or potassium level may trigger cramps, so your doctor may recommend supplements.

How can muscle cramps be prevented?

Muscle cramps in the calf and foot can be prevented by maintaining hydration and electrolyte balance by drinking enough fluids and replacing lost fluids after exercise. Increasing the calcium intake may also help to prevent muscle cramping. Stopping or decreasing strenuous activity when a muscle starts to spasm is also helpful, as it causes the muscle to relax and stops any further damage from occurring.

Some people find that stretching the muscles of the area where cramps occur may help to prevent them from occurring. Stretching in a warm environment and slowly moving into positions which may cause pain have been the cause of cramps in the past can help to identify the trigger and prevent them from occurring again.

In conclusion, muscle cramps are a common but often misunderstood ailment, and can be prevented by treating underlying medical conditions, avoiding dehydration, and getting enough quality sleep. People should know the signs and symptoms of muscle cramps so they can seek treatment sooner rather than later. Many people experience night cramps, especially after an intense workout. Muscle spasms often occur during the night, when muscles are in a relaxed state. This is why it is important to stretch your muscles before bedtime in order to avoid them altogether. A healthy diet consisting of healthy fats, proteins, and carbohydrates will also help to prevent muscle cramps.

Dr. M Shahadat Hossain
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